Every good day begins with a to-do list

And yes, even weekends.

I love trying new productivity apps. I’ve tried dozens over the years. My go-to apps are Google Calendar for scheduling appointments and Fabulous for building new habits. But when it comes to-do lists, I’ve always relied on pen and paper.

A to-do list instills a planning mindset. Learning how to plan your day is the first step in planning your week, month, and eventually your year.

When it’s in head your head, it’s an idea. When it’s written down, it’s a plan. Those who write their goals down longhand are more likely to succeed at them. Break down a goal to its smallest components: it is made up of the things you do on a day-to-day basis.

Writing down your tasks clears out your mental storage, freeing your mind to focus on the problems at hand. You no longer have to worry if you have forgotten to do something. Interestingly, the physical act of writing also helps you remember things better.

There’s something satisfying about crossing out tasks with your favourite pen, however daunting they may be. Never mind the fact that you might be daunted by the simplest of things, like a phone call.

Writing it down on paper means it can be done.

Discomfort is a compass

Having lunch alone at work. Waiting on a diagnosis after a doctor’s appointment. Networking at events.

I no longer fear having to do these. (Okay, I’m a little afraid of seeing my doctor.) They’re all part of being a functional adult. But they’re only the start of a long list of things that make me feel uncomfortable. I do all I can to put them off as long as I can.

In her TED talk, Priya Parker talks about building your resistance towards discomfort. When we’re in public, our first instinct is to reach for the phone and blending in with everyone else. It’s easy. What’s hard is drawing attention to yourself and being okay with it.

Parker suggests singing — not too loudly — but loud enough to be heard. Your heart will start to pound as people zero in on you. Training yourself to get used to this feeling will build your discomfort muscles. Luckily, you don’t even have to sing in Tesco to try this experiment.

“It’s he or she who’s willing to be the most uncomfortable can rise strong.”
— Brené Brown

Discomfort is a compass. It helps you navigate why you deliberately or subconsciously avoid something.

  • Why do I get nervous at networking events? I take a long time to warm up to people and it might get awkward.
  • Why do I take so long to be myself around new people? I don’t spend much time talking to people at events.
  • Why do I want to meet other local artists and designers if it makes me nervous? I want to learn from them.

By shifting the focus towards leaning into discomfort, you stop relying on motivation. Instead, your goal is to see it through.

I’m always nervous around new people, so I prepare for the possibility of awkward moments. I speak up whenever I’m curious. Even if I all I do is ask people about themselves, I can learn a lot by listening. And it ends up being fun.

Instead conquering your biggest fears, why not start the new year confronting something that makes you uncomfortable?

Make an adventure out of the mundane

I came across an app called Fabulous a few years ago. You go on quests towards leveling up your energy and productivity by cultivating healthy habits. The habits give structure to your days as you go about living your life. Being an avid gamer, I love productivity apps that gamify real life. But after a while, it was too much work. I lost interest.

Fast forward to 2016 — my best friend drew me into an online game called Guild Wars 2. But it wasn’t the immersive world of Tyria or the dynamic, collaborative gameplay that kept me coming back. It was how your progress in the entire game could be measured — every quest, every story, every new area traversed.

I played everyday for the “dailies”. Complete a random list three of tasks and you were rewarded in gold. Sometimes the tasks were easy and I’d complete them before breakfast, boasting to an unimpressed husband. Sometimes, I had to spend hours traversing treacherous lands. I looked forward to being assigned a new set of dailies every day at 8 am. Completing them gave me a small spark of achievement I wasn’t getting from my job.

However, over time I no longer got a sense of achievement from the game, let alone any joy. On weekends, I could spend half a day on my computer, accumulating experience points while my real life went nowhere. I wished I could have that kind of dedication towards achievement in real life.

Then it hit me. I could.

I re-downloaded Fabulous. In the years I had been away, it had become smoother, sleeker, and most importantly — more fun. It’s illustrated like a storybook where you get to be the main character. Once I saw it as a game, I saw no barrier to diving right in.

The first three days you’re told to drink some water as soon as you wake up and read letters telling you you’re brave for making this first step. It was already a habit of mine (the only one left over from the first time I tried Fabulous) so I was itching for something more challenging.

Next, I had to make a point to eat a healthy breakfast. I started waking up early just so I could take my time whipping up a wholesome meal for myself.

A grueling challenge came three days later — eight minutes of exercise every morning. I couldn’t even remember the last time I had gone to the gym. But you’re allowed to keep it simple. I did yoga in my living room and danced to my favourite songs when I didn’t feel up for twenty sun salutations. If I fell sick, I opted for light stretches.

I eventually had to go on go on a “journey” — a set of challenges centred on a chosen goal. I chose to build my up focus and concentration.

  • The challenges weren’t always easy.
  • Write a to-do list every morning. (Easy.)
  • Identify 3 of the most important tasks on your to-do list. (Easy to do, difficult to carry out.)
  • Work for 25 minutes with no interruptions three days in a row. (Difficult.)
  • Block out distractions five times this week. (Extremely difficult. I don’t know how to live without wi-fi. It took me weeks to complete this.)
  • Write down what you’re grateful for every night. (Easier than expected. Today, I’m thankful for cakes.)

My therapist checked in on me and said I looked happier. I was pleased — I felt happier. I was much healthier, no longer waking up lethargic in the morning. I tried things I had only dreamed of. I made new friends in new places and connected with old friends. I began to express my creativity outside of work, something I had not done in a long time.

What began as a few simple habits in the morning had trickled into other parts of my life.

Make an adventure out of the mundane. It might be fun.

Rein in your productivity

Copperplate calligraphy comes with strict rules – light upstrokes, heavy downstrokes, measured movements. You repeat the same strokes over and over so they become muscle memory.

All to achieve one thing. Perfection.

For years, I had taken everything I knew about copperplate and applied it to brush pen calligraphy. And then it occurred to me you could break every single one of those rules with a brush pen.

Exulted by what I had discovered, I began practicing nonstop. I sketched and inked furiously, ignoring the dull ache that had formed in the middle and ring fingers of my right hand hours later.

I have carpal tunnel syndrome, a souvenir from engineering school. If you use your hands a lot, you run the risk of getting CTS. Repetitive motions like typing and drawing can compress the nerves running through the wrist. I do stretches every other morning and wear a splint whenever my wrist acts up.

At my best, life goes on ostensibly well.

At my worst, I showed up to Object Oriented Programming in C++ with both wrists in splints, much to the horror of my classmates.

I knew better, but I kept going even as the telltale pain made its way up my elbow. Close to midnight, it felt like someone had strung metal wires from my fingertips through my arm up to right shoulder. My hand was shaking. I could barely draw a straight line if I wanted to, let alone draw the alphabet.

I couldn’t even glorify the fact that I had produced quality work because I was five hours overdue for a break. It will take a fortnight of rest before life can go on ostensibly well again.

Rein in your productivity. There’s excitement over making things, and then there’s pushing yourself too hard. Doing a week’s worth of work in one night is not only unsustainable. It stops you from producing your best.

What I should have done was taken breaks when before my hand began to hurt. Called it a night and tucked away my sketches somewhere safe. Returning to them a few days later with a fresh set of eyes would allow me to judge my work with the objectivity it deserves.

All to express one thing. Creativity.